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App Developers Sticking to iPhone

Developers say fragmentation is hurting Android, while RIM and Microsoft fall still farther behind.

Developers of smart-phone apps are coding all out, and they can hardly keep up with Apple’s iPad and iPhone, let alone the explosion of Android devices and new offerings from RIM and Microsoft. That’s the takeaway from the joint IDC/Appcelerator quarterly survey of 2,760 mobile developers, out today.

The survey represents the third such partnership between research firm IDC and Appcelerator, which builds products that help developers recompile their applications for multiple platforms. Over the past six months, developer interest in both Apple’s iOS platform and Google’s Android platform has remained flat, even as more Android devices have shipped than any other kind.

App developers say the problem is that as Android is deployed on more devices, it’s becoming harder to develop for it, because of a profusion of device specifications and a pool of newcomer app developers, many of whom were Web and desktop developers just two years ago. Robert Koch, whose team develops the task-list organizer Wunderlist, wrestles with the vagaries of Android development every day. (Wunderlist is on iOS, Android, OS X, Windows, and the Web.)

“It’s very, very difficult to write a good application for every Android device,” says Koch, who cites differing screen resolutions, hardware configurations, and CPU speeds as core concerns. “We had to buy a lot of devices just [to test] our little task-management app.”

Wunderlist is free, so Koch has not had the chance to observe the effects of Android’s imperfect payment system, which has been a barrier to revenue on Google’s Android Market. Although Wunderlist has been “pretty huge” on Android, says Koch, Android downloads represent only 7 percent of Wunderlist’s total downloads to date. Wunderlist has been on the Apple App Store three months longer than it has been on the Android Market, but even taking that into account, the Android share of its market is low, says Koch.

“Google has enormous momentum in terms of shipment numbers, but that’s not carrying over as cleanly as we might expect to developer interest,” says Scott Ellison of IDC. “There’s still distinctly more interest in Apple than in Android. Developers are choosing the number-two platform in installed base and shipment numbers.”

Cloud services that developers plan to integrate into their mobile apps in the next 12-18 months

The survey, besides showing that the iOS and Android platforms are treading water, revealed that the RIM platform could be headed for serious trouble, says Ellison. Developer interest in RIM’s Blackberry dropped 11 percentage points since last quarter, with only 27 percent of developers saying they were “very interested” in creating apps for the platform—despite the upcoming Blackberry tablet, and despite that many of the survey respondents work on enterprise and in-house applications, which have been an RIM stronghold.

Developer interest in Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 OS also dropped 7 points, to 29 percent of respondents, but it still pulled ahead of RIM in overall developer “mindshare.” “Microsoft is probably in the best position to win the number-three place [in the mobile market],” says Ellison, who credits this to PC integration, Nokia’s switch to Microsoft’s mobile OS, and the company’s enormous distribution channels.

As for Android tablets, developers are showing substantially less interest in individual devices than in the platform as a whole. Ellison attributes this to their frustration with the hardware implementations so far—particularly the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Motorola’s Xoom tablet. One portion of the survey that was not made public revealed that developers believe the 10-inch format pioneered by Apple will eventually overtake seven-inch tablets.

Internet connectivity and cloud computing are becoming increasingly important to app developers, with 84 percent reporting they have already incorporated cloud connectivity into their apps. Much of this consists of integration with social media like Facebook and Twitter, but Wunderlist has achieved deeper integration with the cloud. Indeed, since the program’s distinguishing feature is its ability to sync seamlessly across all devices and platforms, it would hardly exist without cloud connectivity.

One of the reasons Ellison of IDC says his company used Appcelerator’s developer base for the survey is that they may be less biased than average. Appcelerator’s Titanium platform is designed to make it easy for Web developers to use their site-building skills to create apps that can then be compiled into native apps for mobile platforms. So these developers tend to be relatively new to mobile development and may be less partisan. Appcelerator’s motivation to partner with IDC is no less directly self-interested: the developer overload and device fragmentation problems revealed in the survey are precisely what its platform is designed to solve.

Wunderlist’s Koch is a big fan of the Titanium platform, having settled on it after evaluating competing platforms like PhoneGap. He says that the development time for realizing Wunderlist in multiple operating systems was just four months, a schedule that would have been impossible without Titanium. When asked whether he planned to port Wunderlist to RIM and Windows Phone 7, he said he’d like to but he simply doesn’t have the time.

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